Forgotten Hoosier Hero Samuel Woodfill

Portrait of Woodfill by Joseph Cummings Chase, 1919. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

Perhaps one of the most heroic soldiers of World War I, Samuel Woodfill is largely forgotten today. He would have preferred it that way. Modest and a skilled marksman, Woodfill was born in Jefferson County, near Madison, in January 1883.  Growing up, he watched his father and older brothers use guns to hunt, observing how they shot. By the age of ten, he was secretly taking a gun out to hunt squirrels and telling his mother the squirrels were from a neighbor. When he was caught, his veteran father (John Woodfill served in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War), was so impressed with Woodfill’s marksmanship he was allowed to take the gun whenever he pleased.

At 15, Woodfill tried to enlist during the Spanish-American War. He was turned down, but enlisted in 1901 at the age of 18. He served in the Philippines until 1904, and returned home for only a few months before he volunteered to be stationed at Fort Egbert in Alaska. It was in Alaska that Woodfill worked on his marksmanship, hunting caribou, moose, and brown bears in the snowy landscape of the Last Frontier until 1912. Upon his return to Fort Thomas, Kentucky, Woodfill was promoted to sergeant due to his impeccable record. In 1914, he was sent to defend the Mexican border until his return to Fort Thomas in 1917. While Woodfill showed great discipline and marksmanship as a soldier, World War I would prove how exceptional he really was.

Woodfill (left) and his comrades in Alaska. Image courtesy Lowell Thomas, Woodfill of the Regulars, 1929.

In April 1917, Woodfill was promoted to Second Lieutenant and he prepared to go to Europe to fight on the front. Before leaving, he married his longtime sweetheart, Lorena “Blossom” Wiltshire, of Covington, Kentucky. Woodfill was part of the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F.), Company M, 60th Infantry, 5th Division and was promoted to First Lieutenant while in Europe.

“Lieut. Woodfill used his rifle as a club.” New Castle Herald (New Castle, Pennsylvania), April 5, 1919, accessed Newspapers.com

Woodfill’s most defining moment, and one that brought him international fame, occurred on October 12, 1918 near Cunel, France during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Leading his men through enemy territory, Woodfill’s company was attacked by German soldiers. Not wanting to put any of his men in danger, Woodfill proceeded ahead alone to face the enemy. Using his marksman skills, he identified the probable locations for German nests, and took out several snipers and their replacements. As he moved forward, his men managed to keep up with him and together they braced themselves for the shelling that would continue throughout the afternoon. When it finally stopped, Woodfill went back to retrieve the pack he had left behind, discovering that the jar of strawberry jam he had been saving was gone. Hearing Woodfill grumble about the “yellow-bellied son of a sea cook” who stole it, the company cook gave Woodfill a fresh apple pie. Remembering the pie years later, Woodfill said “I don’t think any medal I ever got pleased me half as much as that apple pie.” Woodfill spent ten weeks in the hospital, recovering from the mustard gas he breathed in while taking out the German snipers.

Woodfill received the Medal of Honor for his actions in January 1919 before returning home to Kentucky. Several other medals followed, including the Croix de Guerre with palm (France, 1919), and the Croce di Guerra (Italy, 1921).

Samuel Woodfill. Image courtesy of Jefferson County Historical Society

He left the Army in November 1919, but quickly realized that after such a long time in the forces, finding a job would be difficult. Three weeks later, he reenlisted as a sergeant, losing his rank of captain he had achieved during the war. But as long as Woodfill was in the Army and living a quiet life, he was happy. Soon, his heroic actions during the war were forgotten by the public. This changed in 1921 when Woodfill was chosen to be a pallbearer to the Unknown Soldier by General Pershing. Upon seeing Woodfill’s name on the list to choose from, he exclaimed,

“Why, I have already picked that man as the greatest single hero in the American forces.”

Interest in Woodfill and his story gained popularity, and the fact that he had lost his rank as captain bothered many. Appeals as to his rank would appear in the Senate, but proved fruitless. Woodfill’s rank did not bother him, but the pay did. He wanted to provide for anything his wife wanted, and could not do that on a sergeant’s pay. In 1922, he took a three months’ leave from the Army and worked as a carpenter on a dam in Silver Grove to make enough money to pay the mortgage. By 1923, Woodfill was able to retire from the Army with a pension. Author Lowell Thomas took an interest in Woodfill and published a biography titled Woodfill of the Regulars in 1929 in an attempt to help Woodfill pay his mortgage. Framed as Woodfill telling the story of his life, Thomas had to add an epilogue to include the prestigious honors he received because Woodfill only included the Medal of Honor.

Woodfill on the rifle range at Fort Benning, Georgia, 1942. Image courtesy The Cincinnati Enquirer, via newspapers.com

In 1942, the War Department reenlisted Woodfill and Sergeant Alvin York, another WWI hero. Having lost his wife a few months earlier, Woodfill sold everything he owned and went off to serve in WWII. Woodfill passed most of the entrance exams, but had to be given special clearance because he did not have the minimum number of teeth required to serve. (Check back to learn about Hoosier dentist Dr. Otto U. King, who, through the National Council of Defense, mobilized dentists to treat military recruits rejected due to dental issues during World War I). At 59 years old, Woodfill was still an excellent marksman, hitting “bull’s-eye after bull’s-eye” on a rifle range in Fort Benning, Georgia. He did not serve long, as he hit the mandatory retirement age of 60 in 1943.

Rather than returning to Kentucky, Woodfill settled in an apartment in Vevay, Indiana. He spent his remaining years in solitude, enjoying the anonymity that he had craved throughout his career. He died on August 10, 1951 and was buried in a cemetery between Madison and Vevay. In 1955, Woodfill’s story resurfaced and a push to honor the WWI hero resulted in Woodfill’s body moving to Arlington National Cemetery. He was buried near General Pershing with full military honors in October 1955.

Woodfill did not enjoy the spotlight, but after taking on the enemy singlehandedly in the midst of a battle, he deserved it. He worked hard throughout his life with little expectation of recognition for his great accomplishments.

Emmett Forest Branch: Short Term Governor, Long Term Proponent for the People

 

Governor Emmett F. Branch, Governors’ Portrait Collection, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Emmett Forest Branch may have only completed part of a term as Governor of Indiana, but he worked continuously for the people of the state. He constantly urged them to have faith in the Republican policy of “expansion of the agencies of government necessary to meet the requirements of the population.” By this, he meant improving schools, roads, and care of the state’s wards. As lieutenant governor and governor, Branch advocated specifically for these reforms.

Born in Martinsville to Elliott Branch and Alice Parks in 1874, Branch attended Martinsville High School and graduated from Indiana University in 1896. Branch’s father possessed a unique sense of humor, naming his children Olive, Leafy, Emmett Forest, and Frank Oak, to create his own family “tree.” Branch inherited this humor, inserting jokes into stories he shared. One story in particular went the twentieth-century version of “viral,” and was printed in newspapers across the country. In this story, Branch recalled one of his walks while in cadet school. He came across a man in need of money. Sure that he did not have a cent on him, Branch told the man he could have any money found while turning his pockets inside out. A silver dollar fell out, and Branch returned to his room confused. He later found out that he had worn his roommate’s pants by mistake.

Upon graduating from IU, Branch returned home to Martinsville to practice law. However, when the Spanish-American War began in 1898, he put his career on hold to enlist. After the war, Branch was elected to three terms in the Indiana House of Representatives in 1903, 1905, and 1907. While serving as representative, Branch worked for reform via the shippers’ railway commission bill, opposing big corporations. He is quoted as saying:

The time is past when the people should be taxed to further the rich corporations because the latter are now in a condition to care for themselves.

He also introduced legislation to make automated voting machines mandatory in an attempt to solve the problem of vote-selling and vote-buying, abolishing election frauds and election contests. During his 1907 term, he served as Speaker of the House. As speaker, Branch supported temperance reform, especially the local county option bill, which allowed each county to choose whether they should be a dry county. After his speakership, Branch continued to practice law in Martinsville. Once the United States entered World War I in 1917, Branch again enlisted, serving as colonel in the 151st United States Infantry.

“Republican Candidates,” Brazil Daily Times (Ind.), October 15, 1920, 4, accessed Newspapers.com.

In 1921, Branch was sworn in as lieutenant governor under Governor Warren McCray. His first act as lieutenant governor was to end the practice of “omnibus bills” in the Indiana legislature. This practice was used to vote on several bills at once. Branch is quoted saying “It is what I would call ‘guessing them off.’ Gentlemen, guessing off law that is to be fastened upon the people of Indiana is not right.” He closed with another statement: “We should first take care of the unfortunates in the institutions and then put Indiana where she belongs in the educational world.” Later in 1924 while discussing taxes, Branch asserted that, “You cannot have better roads, better schools, better teachers and better care of the unfortunates unless you pay the price.” These two statements encapsulate the position that Branch took as a Republican lawmaker toward improvements in the state.

“Memorial Day Bill Defeated,” The Daily Republican (Rushville, Ind.), January 26, 1921, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Two issues arose in the General Assembly during Branch’s time as lieutenant governor with much debate by the public and the assembly. In 1921 and 1923, a “Memorial Day” bill was introduced that sought to prohibit automobile races, baseball games, and other sports on Memorial Day when admission is charged. This bill would end the Indianapolis 500, an Indianapolis Memorial Day weekend tradition since 1911. The bill was not passed in 1921, but was returned to a vote in 1923, where it then passed. But Governor McCray vetoed the bill, stating that he had “a sacred regard for the traditions and the purpose of Memorial day” and that the bill was “class legislation and therefore unconstitutional.”

The second issue that arose was the repeal of the 1919 anti-German language laws, passed in part because of World War I. Representative Waldemar Eickhoff introduced the bill in an attempt to remove discrimination against the German language. The bill eventually passed, but not without a rider attached to it that prevented “the teaching of any foreign language, including Spanish, Latin, and French.” The discussion of this bill became so intense that Branch broke his gavel on the podium trying to restore order.

The Indianapolis News, April 29, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Scandal hit the governor’s office in April 1924, when McCray was convicted on charges of “using the mails in furtherance of a scheme to defraud [his creditors],” and resigned from office. Branch became Governor of Indiana on April 30, 1924 as soon as McCray’s resignation became official. He was the first alum of Indiana University to become governor. With the little time that he did have in office, Branch attempted to build upon McCray’s goals. But before he did this, he had to investigate the administration to ensure that McCray had not involved or compromised the government. He ensured that all departments under the control of McCray were investigated before proceeding as governor.

“Will be Indiana Governor,” The Indianapolis News, April 29, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Branch was a firm believer that education was a principal foundation of the government and that Indiana’s education system needed more support from the citizens to improve this system. He believed that better education meant a better citizenry, and that spending more on education would ultimately improve Indiana as a state. Republicans at the time pushed for a “county unit of education,” which would create a county board of education responsible for tasks such as locating schools and appointing teachers. Through this system, supporters hoped that the school system would have a more uniform quality throughout the state and a fair tax rate in the county. True to his Republican ideals, Branch recommended that the county unit of education be implemented via the seventy-fourth general assembly in his speech on January 8, 1925, saying “I think it should be done for I believe it a step for better education and that is one essential we must not lost sight of in building up our government.”

Muncie Evening Press, December 12, 1925, 10, accessed Newspapers.com.

In October 1924, Governor Branch called a statewide safety conference to see what could be done to lessen the number of people being killed at railroad grade crossings. He hoped that in doing so it would save lives. Branch ensured that all delegates at the conference represented all interests in the subject—railroads, automobile clubs, etc. In his message to the Indiana General Assembly in 1925, he reported the solutions found by the conference members. Branch suggested creating a department of safety. The public service commission should be given the “power to require railroad companies to install and operate flash-light signals, signs, or other modern signal devices at railroad crossings over highways in the country.” Other suggestions included enacting a safety zone and a “Stop, Look, Listen” law to be enacted. Along with this, he was actively involved in extending the state highway system, believing, like many Republicans, that improved transportation would improve the economy.

“Branch Issues May Day Proclamation,” The Indianapolis Star, May 1, 1924, 1, accessed Newspapers.com.

Further advocating for the “unfortunates,” Branch’s first official statement as governor urged people to observe May Day as “Child Health Day” for the improvement of the health and happiness of children. He further supported healthcare for children by dedicating the new Riley Hospital for Children on October 7, 1924, the birthday of James Whitcomb Riley and namesake of the hospital. As lieutenant governor, Branch oversaw a law passed providing for the establishment of the hospital. In a letter to Hugh M. Landon, president of the Riley Memorial Association, Branch wrote, “I earnestly recommend that the citizens observe the week of October 1 to 7 as ‘Riley Hospital Week’ and make such plans to further aid this institution as their voluntary judgement and good faith in childhood may justify.” In January 1925, Branch boasted to the Indiana General Assembly that “the work being done there for the unfortunate little folks is of the highest quality.”

Support of children’s health was not his only concern—he also continued McCray’s efforts for a new state reformatory at Pendleton and relocation of the Indiana School for the Blind. He defended both of these decisions in his speech at the Republican Convention in May 1924. He encapsulated the speech in a pamphlet titled “The Truth About Your State Government,” in which he discussed the purchasing power of the currency and what taxes pay for in the state. He asserted that the Republicans took over the reins of government from “the most incompetent, inefficient and costly” Democrats in Washington and had been working to reverse the problems they caused. While this seems rather blunt, Branch explained how money was being spent and where in terms that non-politicians could understand. He ended his pamphlet on a good note by stating why he has faith in the people and in his party.

Indiana Bell Telephone Company Equipment Truck No. 467B, 1923, courtesy Bass Photo Collection, Indiana Historical Society.

Unlike his predecessor, the most scandalous thing that Branch dealt with was the Indiana Bell Telephone Company’s attempt to force higher rates on customers without the approval of the public service commission. Branch “demonstrated his willingness to ‘go to battle’ for the rights of the people,” gaining more support as governor from the citizens of Indiana. During a speech before the Indiana Republican Editorial Association, Branch asserted that “as long as he was Governor the Governor’s office and all other state departments would be found fighting for the interests of the people ‘against this monopoly.’” In 1925, this issue gained the majority of attention in discussing the high points of his term.

A fan of Abraham Lincoln and proud Republican, he often reminded people that the former president once contended “The Republican party is good enough for me” and that “What was good enough for Lincoln is good enough for me.” In an article published upon his death, Branch is described as “austere and dignified, with a Lincolnesque face,” a description he would have loved.

After leaving office, Branch retired with his wife, Katherine Bain Branch, to their home of more than twenty years at 510 E. Washington Street in Martinsville. He practiced law and continued to serve as president of the Branch Grain and Seed Company. Branch died unexpectedly on February 23, 1932 at the age of 57 in Martinsville.